The South African season reaches its traditional conclusion on Saturday with the Currie Cup final between the Sharks and Western Province in Durban.
The Sharks last won the title against the same opponents in 2013, and Province beat the Lions in the 2014 final. Saturday’s opponents ended the log season in first and second place, but had to come through a tough pair of semifinals to maintain their interest in Sir Donald Currie’s famous trophy.
If form lines are anything to go by, Province are the slight favourites. They beat the Sharks in Durban in the final round of log play a fortnight ago, and they dominated most aspects of their semi against the Lions last week. The Sharks lost against Free State in their opening match of the tournament, then won 10 in a row before surrendering to Province. They then had the more fraught of the semis, encountering a rejuvenated Blue Bulls side.
In seasons to come, it may be noted that the Bulls renaissance began in 2017, when John Mitchell took over the coaching and shook the ossified union to its foundations. Similarly, Free State’s decision to join the Pro 14 forced them to blood a host of youngsters in the Currie Cup. Players such as Daniel Maartens and Ernst Stapelberg will be key to Free State’s future.
Those two reflect one of the truisms of the game in this country — that when things appear at their darkest, human capital emerges to fill the void. The Springboks lost by a record 57-0 to the All Blacks in New Zealand this year, but they regrouped to such an extent that they lost by a single point to the same opponents at Newlands three weeks later. In that match, Malcolm Marx morphed from promising youngster into great player.
Equally, the Currie Cup has had a schizophrenic year, but players of unquestionable pedigree have put up their hands. Wilco Louw at Province, S’bu Nkosi at the Sharks, Warrick Gelant at the Bulls, Maartens and Marx, all have the ability to enjoy significant careers at the highest level.
We should not ignore the downside to the competition, however. The South African Rugby Union (Saru) should not be allowed to treat the jewel in its crown with such cavalier abandon. In recent seasons they have messed with the number of teams competing in the premier division. They have waited until the 11th hour to release fixtures, compressed the tournament into shorter and shorter time frames, and even gone against the rules of World Rugby (WR) by insisting on 22-man squads, instead of 23.
It beggars belief that a seven-team Currie Cup, the format agreed for 2017, should play for three months to eliminate just three teams. The Sharks won the log by a clear 10 points but, if they lose on Saturday, will have nothing to show for it. And let’s not forget the teams were forced to play three games in 10 days in order to fit the competition into its agreed parameters.
It is not surprising that the public have chosen to stay away. Neither semifinal topped the 25 000 bums on seats mark, and it would be one of the biggest surprises of the season if Kings Park puts up the “house full” signs on Saturday.
But there is a very good chance that those who choose to buy a ticket will get to see a classic.
The Sharks looked finished as a union in 2013, when an ill-advised board shake-up installed John Smit as chief executive and dispensed with the services of John Plumtree as head coach. Four years later, they are far from the finished product but the signs are extremely encouraging.
A host of players have come to the fore in 2017, including Nkosi (although injury will keep him out of the final), Lukhanyo Am, Jacques Vermeulen, Thomas du Toit, Ruan Botha, the Du Preez twins and Curwin Bosch. The downside of all that talent is that only the Du Preez twins were schooled locally.
But it needs to be acknowledged that the union has overcome the exodus of the likes of Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis, Willem Alberts, Marcell Coetzee, Frans Steyn, JP Pietersen, Ryan Kankowski and, most recently, Pat Lambie.
For Western Province the churn has included Duane Vermeulen, Schalk Burger, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh and Jean de Villiers.
It is worth considering all this when we blithely state that Springbok and provincial rugby are at a low ebb. In fact, what we are seeing is the now regular overhaul of squads based upon market forces. The local currency simply cannot hold those gifted enough to play in Europe and Japan. It may be that therein lies the future and that unions will become used to selecting teams that are mostly under 26.
Be that as it may, the Currie Cup final deserves to be the culmination of the season, if only because it helps to mask the awful mess that has become Super Rugby. The oldest provincial competition in the world should need no excuses. Much of the country’s best young talent will be on display and in years to come the less-than-perfect antecedents to the final will be consigned to the dustbin of history.